17th Feb2016

‘Better Call Saul 2×01: Switch’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“SG WAS HERE”

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It starts and ends with the same conundrum. When the rules say no to us, whether it’s an alarmed security door barring our escape or a seemingly purposeless warning label on an otherwise normal light switch, what do we do, and why? How do we maintain our identities in a world trying to make our own decisions for us at every turn? Better Call Saul spends its second season’s first hour chewing that increasingly bitter cud, trying to masticate an answer out of life and coming away with frightened avoidance, pointless defiance, and a sad, frustrated man carving a name he doesn’t dare tell anyone is his into a concrete wall across from a Dumpster.

The events of last season taught Jimmy just how little gain there is in following the rules for their own sake. He lives in a closet, his brother thinks he’s a joke, and even the dream of a partnership at a respected firm, something he’s fought long and hard to obtain, is now a prospect devoid of pleasure. He did everything right and has nothing to show for it, all because Chuck can’t let go of his idea of his brother as the con artist Slippin’ Jimmy, a man who in Chuck’s mind is no more fit to practice law than a chimp is to carry a machine gun. So if you can’t beat ‘em and they won’t let you join ‘em, what’s left besides floating your days away in a tacky inflatable pool chair and scanning the cabana-goers for signs of a sucker?

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Why aren’t we all living the lives we want? Why can’t we snooze all day and scam assholes into buying our dinner, especially if that’s where our talents lie? Better Call Saul‘s second season premiere, ‘Switch,’ is almost supernaturally confident in its portrayal of the confusion and frustration of just trying to be yourself. Its beautiful opening sequence, a return to the black-and-white purgatory of the Midwestern Cinnabon Saul manages in his post-Breaking Bad life, depicts a man paradoxically driven to leave some sign of his own existence and desperately afraid of being found out for what he is. The way he stares at the sign on the security door like it’s a gun he could jam up under his chin and pull if he just had the guts for it is well and truly pitiful.

Throughout the episode, the camera chops Jimmy apart and isolates him at every turn. That opening trifecta of shots in which he is by turns buried in the lower right corner of the frame and reduced first to the back of his head and then to his twitching left hand sets the stage for an hour of television that doesn’t so much plumb his depths as it does his shallows. “What will Jimmy McGill do when no one is looking and he’s stopped caring enough to police himself?” turns out to be a pretty interesting question. He floats, he breezes, he bullshits, and he fights as hard as he can to deny the fact that even slacking can be an unwinnable struggle. When it all becomes too much, the implosion of his half-baked dream feels more like a shrug than an explosion. He can’t even commit to being noncommittal.

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Jimmy may be directionless, but Better Call Saul has achieved the seemingly impossible feat of finding a clear and unique voice all its own without leaning too heavily on the legacy of its illustrious originator. At the same time, the rich symbolic charter left behind by Breaking Bad lets the show indulge in fun gags like establishing the asshole Bluetooth-user whose car Walt dead-engines with a scrub brush as the target of some sort of universal karmic malice. More grimly, the reappearance of the same brand of tequila Gus used to poison Don Eladio and his gang in season 4′s tremendous ‘Salud’ is an omen of the toxic nature of Jimmy’s favorite pastime. It’s a clear callback that manages to speak to the show at hand while referencing its point of origin, a deft piece of craftsmanship.

Better Call Saul is a crackerjack show with legs and pedigree both, and its second season looks to build on the successes of its first. It’s gonna be donkey balls, man. Pure donkey balls.

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